Williams College senior Than Finan (Williamstown, MA; Mt. Greylock HS) is the best Division 3 soccer goalkeeper in America.
Can I prove this claim? No, but nobody can disprove it, either. At Amherst in October, Finan played what I thought was the best game I’d ever seen by an Eph keeper. On Nov. 19, in the NCAA Elite Eight, he actually played a better one. The game ended 0-0 and went to penalty kicks. Finan stuffed the Jeff shooter on the opening kick and their third shot was high. The first Eph missed but the next four converted, so Williams "won" (officially the game goes into the books as a tie) the PKs 4-3 and is off to the Final Four in San Antonio on Nov. 30.
Goalkeeper stats are virtually meaningless as they tell you very little of what the keeper accomplished on the field. If you chose the best GK in America by using stats, Amherst’s Thomas Bull (who’s pretty damn good) would be my pick.
A goalkeeper has to make dozens of split-second decisions every game. Do I come out of the crease to cut off a cross before the attacker can get to it? Or, should I hold my line and try to make the save? If I come out, can I get there in time? Finan thinks: "That serve is going toward Sucre. Can I punch it away first? No! Sucre will probably head it to my left so I should slide over there right now" and make the save. Finan, under siege the whole game, had this conversation with himself countless times against Amherst.
And that’s the key as to why he’s the best. Amherst outshot Williams 23-7 and had 9 corner kicks to our 1.
Further, Jeff defender Chris Lerner is a "long thrower" and can reach the goalmouth from the attacking zone sideline. So, 23 shots plus 9 corners plus maybe 15 long throws plus free kicks and you have the Eph defense in serious jeopardy maybe 50 times in the 110 minutes.
Coach Mike Russo altered his starting lineup to contain Amherst’s height and speed. At left back was freshman Jonathan Westling, normally a reserve attacker. At right back freshman Noah Grumman, who normally starts in midfield. In midfield replacing Grumman was "Cool Hand" Luke Pierce, a reserve back (who finished the game with his face looking like raw hamburger). The back line thus included one "real" defender (senior Matt Ratajczak), one converted forward (Dan Lima), Westling and Grumman. These four, and Finan, and the crossbar (Amherst hit the bar what must be an NCAA record 5 times) shut out the Jeffs. I’m not sure I’ll ever know how.
In 2009, the Ephs were also a Final Four team. To get to San Antonio that season, Williams went to Pennsylvania for the third and fourth rounds. Both games ended 1-1; Finan was the reserve GK his freshman year. After starting GK Graham earned the ties, Finan came off the bench for the shootouts and made big saves each day as Williams advanced. This season, in the NESCAC tournament semifinal vs. Tufts, Finan made two saves during a 4-2 PK resolution to yet another 0-0 game. The kid actually seems to enjoy facing those 12-yard shots; he must be a little nuts!
Williams met Amherst three times this year, the two 0-0 games plus a decisive 2-0 Jeff win in Williamstown in the NESCAC final. That’s 310 minutes of intense soccer and Williams could not score a goal.
Over the course of the three games, the Jeffs outshot the Ephs 67-27, took 23 corners to 16, and Finan made 14 saves to Bull’s 8. They finish undefeated (Messiah, also in the Final Four, is the only other undefeated D3 side in the nation). Amherst scored 56 goals and allowed only 3.
I believe they could compete with many Division 1 teams. They seem to have no weaknesses. But their season has ended while Williams goes to the national semifinals.
This will be a return trip to San Antonio for seniors Ratajczak, Peter Christman, Patrick Ebobisse and Finan. In 2009, Ebo scored the equalizer against York in Round 3, a 30-yard bullet into the upper corner. Ratajczak was part of a huge and talented back line, all four of whom became All Americas; he scored the decisive PK in the York game. Finan? See above.
Williams, still with just the one loss, will face Ohio Northern (24-2-0) in the semifinal. If they advance, it will likely be against perennial champ Messiah (21-0-2), at their 11th Final Four in the past 13 seasons. The Ephs don’t score many goals and never crush anybody, but make no mistake - they richly deserve this trip to the FF.
A second national championship for the Ephs? Hey, why not. The team seems destined after that wonderful and most improbable game in Amherst. I’ll be there to see it. How could I not?